During a tantrum, children with autism have outbursts with the goal of getting something they want. A sensory meltdown has no specific goal; it is a neurological reaction.
” Imagine filling a small water pitcher. Most of the time, you can control the flow of water and fill the pitcher a little at a time. But sometimes the water flow is too strong and the pitcher overflows before you can turn the water off.”
This is how Amanda Morin describes what a sensory meltdown feels like for a child with autism in her article “The Difference Between Tantrums and Sensory Meltdowns”. This occurs when children feel overwhelmed by their feelings or surroundings; it usually happens in the form of screaming, crying, lashing out or running away from the situation causing the meltdown.
It is important to understand that a sensory meltdown is different from a tantrum. During a tantrum, children have outbursts with the goal of getting something they want. A sensory meltdown has no specific goal; it is a neurological reaction. Taylor Orns, a young adult with autism, describes her reaction to a sensory meltdown:
“Before a meltdown, I immediately feel like something isn’t right. Then, I suddenly get all stressed out, and I tense up. I get so overwhelmed by the tension and stress that sometimes when I respond, I sound angry, frustrated, and a bit mean, but it’s one of those things I sometimes can’t control.
Then, I feel a lump in my throat, and I feel as if my heart is beating 100 times per second, then once I realized that the tears are coming, I know I’m about to have a meltdown. So, I go into another room and it happens. I cry and breakdown to my little heart’s content. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I wail, but I don’t harm myself or anyone around me. But some autistic people do.”
During these moments, children with autism feel out of control. Help them learn how to better manage these sensory meltdowns by teaching them relaxation techniques. The key to teaching self-calming strategies is to do so when a child is calm. It is not the best time to teach them when they are already in the middle of a sensory meltdown. Teach them before they become upset so that they can use these strategies to help calm themselves down.
The first step is to teach a child the difference between calm and upset. An emotion chart with pictures ranging from green being calm to red being angry or extremely upset can help children understand how they are feeling. Identify their emotions and talk about the different ways you can feel. Encourage self-calm strategies before they get to the red end of the spectrum. You can pull out the chart and ask “How are you feeling right now?”
If they are upset, you can assist them through one of the following self-calming strategies.
- Deep breaths: Learning to breathe slowly and deeply can help prevent hyperventilation, which can lead to increased heart rate and anxiety. This is a simple and portable tool that children with autism can use whenever they are beginning to feel upset or overwhelmed. The steps are as follows: Take a slow deep breath through you noise, breathing into your stomach, hold for 1-2 seconds, and slowly exhale through your mouth.
- Soles of the feet: Having a child shift his or her energy away from the negative stimulus to a neutral grounding point in the body such as the soles of the feet has a calming effect; it helps a child resist the urge to act out. Perform this relaxation technique by slowly moving your toes, thinking of the way the ground or your socks feel against your skin, the curve of your arch, and the pressure of your heels against the back of your shoes.
- Birthday Candle Breaths: Have a child hold up both hands. Imagine each finger as a candle. Take a deep breath and “blow out” one candle at a time, putting a finger down after each breath. This is a fun way to get a child to slow their breathing.
- Sensory activity: Focus on an activity that is familiar and known as calming for the child to help him relax. Examples are jumping on a mini trampoline, squeezing playdough or silly putty, and using a weighted blanket. Each child is unique, so find out what works best for yours.
- Calm place: Create a designated area for children to retreat to when they are feeling overwhelmed. Whether it be in the corner of the house or a quiet room, make it a welcoming and relaxing environment with blankets, pillows, and soft animals. Place simple activities such as puzzles, books, logic games, and coloring books in the area.
Remember, sensory meltdowns are involuntary. In these moments, children with autism are feeling overwhelmed and need your help to calm down. Help them do so by learning more about sensory meltdowns, what causes them, and tools a child can utilize to have more control when a situation arises.
About the author
Amber Tanski is a Content Marketing Specialist for DrOmnibus, a company creating ABA DrOmnibus – Resources App. An all in one tool with a direct focus on resources for therapy, including baseline assessment, built-in and personalized ABA programs, graphs and video modeling. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology, Amber has worked with a diverse population through her job as a Line Therapist for young children with Autism, being a Personal Trainer for a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome and working as a Personal Care Assistant for a woman with Muscular Dystrophy. She currently develops content for DrOmnibus utilizing her unique experience.
Morin, A. (2018). The Difference Between Tantrums and Sensory Meltdowns. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/the-difference-between-tantrums-and-sensory-meltdowns.
Orns, T. (2016, February 02). What it’s like to have an autism-related meltdown. Retrieved March 06, 2018, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2016/02/03/what-its-have-autism-related-meltdown.
Singh, N., Wahler, R., Adkins, A., & Myers, R. (2007, November). Meditation on the Soles of the Feet Training[PDF]. Community Networks of Specialized Care.